Realist painting 101: how to transfer your reference image onto the canvas


People often ask me how I get my paintings to be so accurate and realistic. One of the things I would like to do in these blog posts is to share some of my technical secrets with people who want to know how I work. Most people know that I work from photographs, but remain unsure as to exactly how I transfer the photographic image onto the canvas. The simple answer is that I use a system of grids to help me copy an outline of the reference image onto the canvas.


Using a grid to transfer a photographic image onto the canvas. This is a typical set-up in my studio.

Using a grid may sound as if I am ‘painting by numbers’, however all I am really doing is creating an accurate outline of the image using basic mechanical means, rather than using the naked eye alone. Even the Old Masters used this system to transfer their sketches onto large canvases. Having the image drafted correctly gives me the confidence and creative freedom to be able to play with mark-making, colour and tone once I start painting.

There are many variations on how to use grids to draft images. For those who would like to give the method a go, this is how I do it:


Identify the ratio of height to length of the canvas, ie: a 24” by 36” canvas has a ratio of 2:3, (24/2=12, 36/3=12, 12 is the common denominator), so for every 2 inches up, there are 3 inches across. Another example is 30” by 40”, which is simply a 3 to 4 ratio with 10 being the common denominator. When I open the photo in Corel Paintshop Pro the first thing I do is make sure that I crop the image to the same ratio as the canvas. If this isn’t done, when you come to draw the picture on the canvas it will either appear stretched or squashed. The ratio is completely separate to gridding and is done first without even thinking about squares.

I usually grid my canvases into 4’s, ie: 4 squares across and 4 squares down (this may mean that the ‘squares’ are in fact rectangles). I make the grid by lightly using willow charcoal against the steel ruler. I then make sure I have my image gridded likewise on the computer. The beauty in using a larger computer screen is I can then zoom into the picture so that each rectangle on the screen is the exact same size as the rectangle on my canvas (a way to double check that your ratio from the previous step is correct, is to measure and make sure that the height of the square is correct and then check the width, and ensure that they are also the same). I then use direct measurements from the screen to canvas, taking measurements from the grid lines to each point, e.g.: to find the location of a horse’s ear tip, I measure how far across from a vertical grid line, and then how far down/up from a horizontal grid line. I never measure from one point to another within the grid, as this will eventually lead to mistakes.

I pay a great deal of attention to getting my measurements and placement of the subject correct. This means not only marking-out the outline of my subject, but also marking the most obvious ‘shadow’ and ‘light' shapes.

I always only do one square at a time, beginning from the top left and working across the canvas, and then down to the next row, like writing on a page. This helps me to be systematic about the process. It is important to train yourself to see ‘shapes’ rather than describe them mentally as an object. Maintaining this kind of detachment from what you are drawing, and adopting a systematic approach, increases the accuracy of the work. It may seem overly technical, but getting the image right on the canvas gives me the freedom to use all the creative expression I want when it comes to putting paint on canvas. With the image drawn accurately, I am free to feel the joy of painting. If I paint with joy, this is the feeling that ends up on the canvas, and the painting is up-lifting to all those who view it.

Happy painting!

COPYRIGHT © 2019 KATHY ELLEM

You can see Kathy's work in person by appointment at her Beechworth art gallery at 45 Ford Street, Beechworth, Victoria, Australia.

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